The process of building a stereo can be overwhelming. Should you buy new gear or trawl the local stereo shop for vintage equipment? Do you need a subwoofer for music? Are high-end speaker cables really going to make a difference in sound? It’s no wonder, then, that smart speakers have become so popular: They’re available in a variety of sizes and, when paired with a music streaming subscription, are a simple way to access a world of music. But the trade-off for that convenience is sound quality.
While an Echo or HomePod is perfect for listening to podcasts, it can’t stack up to the power and fidelity you get with a traditional stereo. If you’re looking to upgrade, rather than ponying up $500 for a single Google Home Max, consider an alternative solution: building your own stereo HiFi system. While the initial setup and research are more intensive than simply telling Alexa to order more Echo Dots, after it’s done you’ll have a much more versatile — not to mention better-sounding — way to listen to music at home.
A quick note about digital versus analog
We aren’t going to debate the merits of which sounds better in this piece, but it’s important to talk about the differences between analog and digital. For stereo purists, there’s nothing better than using woven copper cable and RCA jacks to connect their gear. But if you want the best sound, the quality of the connection counts, and that factor can be influenced by everything from the length of speaker wire you’re using to how much magnetic interference is in your home.
Stereo gear isn’t required to offer anything beyond analog inputs, and for purists who want to keep it as old-school as possible, that’s a big draw. However, analog gear does have a shortcoming: Some older equipment can take time to fully “warm up” before it achieves peak sound quality. On the other hand, digital signals don’t fall prey to these sorts of things. They’re binary, meaning there’s no quality difference depending on the type of cable you buy or how long a piece of equipment has been turned on. A digital signal either works or it doesn’t — there’s no in between.
[embedded content] Picking an amp
If you’re going to use passive speakers, you’ll need an amplifier to power them. But should you get a stereo receiver or an integrated amp? That depends on how much you listen to AM/FM radio. A receiver is a receiver because, well, it’s receiving broadcast signals. It still has an amplifier built in, but there’s a radio tuner inside as well. If you’d rather skip that, look for an integrated amp. It’s really that simple. There can be a few benefits in choosing an amp over a receiver too, like cleaner design and smaller overall size. That’s in addition to not spending money on a feature you may ultimately never use.
New or vintage?